I have long been interested in the work of Tahir Shah, an author, explorer, and man whose life encapsulates so much more. I caught up with him recently for a cup of espresso and a chat about a myriad of things. What follows below is a sneak peek into our many-sided conversation.
Tahir Shah on Tahir Shah
Tahir Shah is widely regarded as one of the most original and unusual writers working today. I was lucky enough to catch up with him this week, and to hear his thoughts on a range of subjects, from his childhood, to the inspiration behind his work. Tahir Shah in his own words…
When I was young I never realised my childhood was different from anyone else. I thought everyone lived just like we did in a Twilight Zone of ideas, people, and objects. I grew up at Langton House in Kent – in the same house where Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts had lived as a child. I remember one day a Latin tutor arriving at the front door. He was as white as a sheet, as though he had just seen a ghost. It turned out he had spotted the renowned classicist Robert Graves digging a ditch at the front of the house. I tried to pretend it wasn’t Graves. But of course it was.
I went to the same prep school as Baden-Powell as well. It was as though our lives mirrored each other’s. It was called Rose Hill School, and was a throwback to the Victorian Age… utterly sadistic and brutal in the extreme.
My father believed that young people should be challenged. Thinking about it now, there was something about Baden-Powell’s mind-set behind it. So, aged 17, I was sent to Florida to learn to fly Cessna 152s. Despite getting lost over northern Florida and thinking I would die, I passed with an FAA PPL.
My parents groomed me for the diplomatic corps. When I was younger they never thought I had what it took to be a writer. I graduated with a BA in International Relations.
I actually thought I may have become a photographer. I’ve always had a darkroom and a great interest in mechanical cameras.
It was after university that I began to educate myself. There were so many gaps that needed to be filled in my knowledge, and so many experiences needed to ripen me.
Looking at it in hindsight, the secret to life is obvious: the easiest way to have an interesting life is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. I rail against the way society is churning out cookie cutter people who live cookie cutter lives.
Moving to Dar Khalifa, a haunted mansion in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown was one of the craziest things I have done. But, it was the most obvious thing to do. And, look at the result: my book The Caliph’s House became a ‘Time Magazine Top 10 Book of the Year’. It wasn’t that it was so good, but that it touched something in the readers – the longing for a dream.
Even though my books have been translated in to more than 30 languages, it’s The Caliph’s House that gets me the most interesting emails and messages. People who read it become captivated by the idea of throwing in their lives and making an absolute kind of switch.
My success in writing has been a surprise at times, especially given my profound dyslexia. As a kid I was punished at school for being unable to remember spellings, and for being so messy.
I owe a debt to a family friend who passed me a book at a party in 1988. It was Iron & Silk by Mark Salzman, and it showed me how to write a book in an easy and magical way.
That book, and my obsession for stories and storytelling – what I regard as the default setting of humanity – enabled me to produce the work I have.